Thursday, 11 August 2016

Kafka on Crown Street

My latest piece in The Australian, on the challenges of getting back in the system after 25 years away

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. — Franz Kafka 
I’d been back in Australia less than a day when I found myself slip-sliding in the slime with worms of a new bureaucracy. At least it was a new one for me.
TWhile Australia was having its nanny state revolution, I was off toiling in Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire paradise of Hong Kong and later in Milton’s Paradise Lost with prawn soup, the lawless ­melange otherwise known as Bangkok.
I had assumed this usurping of the public service and the law by nannies and ninnies to have been greatly exaggerated … until, back in Sydney, I stood, quaking, under the gimlet gaze and granite face of the woman welcoming the great unwashed at the Australian Taxation Office in Martin Place.
As I stuttered through my story of returning after 25 years abroad, my fantasies of being received like the prodigal son fled with the shark-like widening of a smile that bypassed her eyes and heart to ­arrive, unburdened by the milk of human kindness, at her thin, ­bluish lips.
I hadn’t pitched up for a hand-out. I had a proper job and I wanted to get back in the system.
I waved my true blue, supersized and very expensive Australian passport, complete with extra pages for frequent flyers, ­holograms of national symbols and feral pests and smart-chip technology.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I had tiptoed towards immigration at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport on tenterhooks. Given my port of departure (Bangkok) I half-expected to be hauled off to have my trousers Malcolm Frasered and to feel the clammy touch of the latex glove, maybe even end up on that reality show where earnest ockers in airports did their best impressions of Cops.
But I sailed through the automated gates and Minority Report face scan and waltzed through Customs, with nothing to declare except my admiration for this new, zipless, ultra-efficient Australia.
My smart passport had passed muster with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Was it enough, though, for the ATO’s panjandrums of PAYG? Not on your Dame Nellie Melba or a stale piece of pavlova.
“Computer says no,” I could see her thinking. I would need to prove my existence with three pieces of identification, totalling the mystical score of 100 points, to obtain the sacred tax file number and — O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — be permitted to join the ranks of tax-paying-as-they-go Australians.
Had Canadian sage Tyler Brule been right when he recently pronounced Australia in danger of being over-sanitised, wet-nursed and fatally dumbed-down? I needed a driver’s licence (unlikely, since I hadn’t driven in a quarter of a century), an Australian property rental tenancy agreement (impossible on my first full day in the country) or utility bills (ditto).
The best bet, old sharkface said, was a Medicare card, so off to Crown Street, Darlinghurst, I traipsed, to stand in a queue for 30 minutes, and sit in another one for 40 minutes. When I’m finally handed a sheaf of forms, I can barely bring myself to look in case it asks me for a tax file number.
Fast-forward the promised three weeks — no Medicare card. After peering into a mirror to make sure I’m still there, I return to Crown Street, where I’m told my paperwork was in order but had failed to pass through the bureaucratic blood-brain barrier to the place where people actually make Medicare cards, so it would take another month.
Head spinning, I stagger off to the Immigration and Border Protection Department, a sombre establishment near Central Station covered in public toilet tiles the colour of Uluru and emu shit. My private health insurer had informed me I needed a “certificate of movement”. I’d have been better off trying the Ministry of Silly Walks or that artist who sprays paint from his bottom.
Four hours of automated non-response telephone hell spread over eight calls and two weeks had convinced me of the impossibility of getting a human being on the phone. So I join another queue, at the head of which awaits a man smiling like the Cheshire Cat. It’s not a form I can fill out: just a form telling me to apply online. I should have read the reviews: “Moribund administration … waste of taxpayer dollars … ridiculous”.
None of this prepared me for the brutal business of renting a flat. Real-estate agents? Fakes, showponies and big fat liars, chimerical figures who emerged from their shiny chariots to sneer at my desperation while waving more forms in my face, forms directing me to online forms with compulsory fields I couldn’t fill out, forms created by xenophobic sadists unfamiliar with the ways of modern nomads.
Then there was Optus, its unblinking eye gazing from a pyramid of pure stupid, expecting me to sit stranded on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway for six weeks waiting for broadband, setting up then cancelling appointments, always between 1pm and 5pm despite my pleas of only being free in the mornings.
At least this national telecommunications company had someone answering the phones — someone in Bangladesh who kept telling me everything would be all right without actually being able to answer any of my questions.
Still, I remain of good cheer and take it as an article of faith that one fine day, if the gods are smiling and all the lemons align on the great poker machine in the sky, I will be allowed to pass Pokemon Go and receive my tax file number, and thus be filled with the chest-bursting bliss of being a real person in the land of my birth and accorded the inestimable privilege of being able to pay tax. On that same glorious day, perhaps Optus will send the Mad Hatter, the Walrus and the Eggman to rescue me from my rabbit hole and hook me up.
Until then, I will loiter in the shadows of a country born of convicts, living out In the Penal Colony. As Kafka said: “From a certain point there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
Vive la revolution. I am the slime.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

No Town and Country For Old Men

My first piece for The Australian since joining full time - a skewed look at the Australian election, and perhaps quite fitting, given the skewed and rather strange cliffhanger of a result. The piece as it ran in the online edition is here:

It is nippy in Bippy’s, where the great headkicker and political Mr Fixit Richo - ailing former Senator Graham Richardson - once held court, and where Latham the Barbarian, Paul Keating’s potty-mouthed heir apparent as political polemicist and insulter-in-chief, may have sharpened the barbs that would be unleashed upon conga lines of suckholes from all sides of the political divide.

The restaurant out front of the Town and Country Motel, Strathfield, is freezing as I sit alone, finishing my Wheaties under the impassive gaze of two plaster cherubs in Akubras, one clutching a bounteous bunch of grapes, the other a sheaf of wheat that looks more like cricket pads. The dark chocolate wainscotting, held together in places by great swathes of sticky-tape, almost reaches to the ceiling, where a glass bead game of chandeliers depends, oozing pure 70s. 

My breath makes foggy clouds, or perhaps it’s the ghosts of elections past getting restless. Local gossip has it that Bippy’s was something of a Labor Party bolthole in years gone by. It certainly affords a weird perspective from which to watch the election for someone just days returned from a quarter of a century living and working in the light and heat of Hong Kong and Bangkok.  

A day earlier, as I sat in the Coffee Box at Strathfield Mall, a flashback of horror flickered across my consciousness. A spot of Googling reminded me that I was sitting almost exactly where Wade Frankum began 10 minutes of mayhem that became one of Australia’s worst massacres, turning around to repeatedly stab a teenage girl before shooting seven dead and injuring six more with his semi-automatic rifle before shooting himself in the head in a parking lot after saying ‘I’m sorry’. 

Today, Strathfield is a bustling centre and a kind of Little Korea, a bulgogi-fuelled battlefield where local politicians pen poison letters, sleep with spanners under their pillows and sweep their homes for bugs as they vie for the pork barrels they feel are due Sydney’s third-most-connected transport hub.

Since Richo’s heydey, other Labor right powerbrokers and gladhanders have made Strathfield a happy hunting ground, men like Fast Eddie Obeid, the backroom kingmaker with more false fronts than Hugo Weaving in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, his son Moses, who tried to part the waters and build a marina, and mates like Eric Roozendaal and dirty trickster Joe Tripodi, a saturnine presence who looks like Pete Sampras recast as the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray, not to mention their various Triproteges. 

As these names - vague headlines to me - swirl around the room, it’s getting trippy in Bippy’s. I gaze at the political landscape and it seems populated by pygmies and nitwits. Mama’s little baby may love Shorten’s bread, but no one else seems to be buying it. As for Malcolm in the Middle, the one percenter and self-styled smartest person in the room - meh. 

Where is the blood and thunder, the power and glory, the invective and insults that made Australian politics worth following? Where are the characters, the mates, the friction in the factions? 

When I left Australia, ‘Old Silver’ Bob Hawke had finally been prised from the levers of power by Paul Keating, and parliamentary discourse would never be the same. For the first decade I was away, Australian politics seemed worth following, if only for the ever-more inventive insults and epithets that dripped from the curled lip of Keating. Parliament was a house of shivers waiting for spines, debaters being flogged by warm lettuce, where feral abacuses ran amok, souffles rose twice and bums were araldited to seats. 

Even the desiccated coconut Little Johnny Howard cocked his unruly eyebrow and uttered immortal lines on occasion, likening himself to ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’. 

Let’s not even besmirch the memory of immortals like Gough Whitlam, with his ‘well may we say God save the Queen’ and ‘Kerr’s Cur’ one liners, or the never-repeated feat of ‘Little Digger’ Billy Hughes, who sent the Speaker of the House into a fatal apoplexy by telling Australian second Primer Minister, Alfred Deakin, “at least Judas had the decency to hang himself.”

Today, a charisma bypass and the removal of a sharp tongue seems to come with preselection. The best thing I have read since returning to these shores a nanosecond ago is Tom Dusevic’s cogent, mordent and prescient essay in these pages in 2011, bemoaning the rise and rise of political ‘monoculture’ on both sides, full of ‘minor leaguers’ with ‘stunted’ intellects; lacking “gravitas, broader interests and their methods are those that served them well in student, union or factional politics: stunts and tricks.”

There are no tricks at the Town and Country, not since they ran Lorna out of town, Lorna Doon, who had been working in the world’s oldest profession until the ‘bag full of condoms’ incident, closely followed by the strange case of the cleaning lady and the bed covered in sex toys.

“Lock your door and watch out for Lorna,” had been the advice from the motel’s affable new proprietor, who added: “It’s a classic, isn’t it? It’s like a little slice of the 70s trapped in amber. Bippy’s is straight out of Underbelly or Goodfellas.”

Bippy’s was named, he says, for the cars that would beep as they came over the hill, and as a parody of Beppi’s, the famed Darlinghurst restaurant that has hosted Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rihanna, Pink, Julio Iglesias, Joe Cocker, Billy Joel and most recently by Hollywood funnyman Ben Stiller, as well as being a favourite of John Howard, Bob Hawke and Julie Bishop, and where Kerry Packer and Sam Chisholm reportedly had a standing  every Friday lunchtime in the wine cellar room.

Beppi Polese, the proprietor, died recently. It’s a safe bet he never dined at Bippy’s. Richo did, though, as did Latham. I peer into the dining room’s gloom, expecting to see Ray Liotta or Joe Pesci, or perhaps Alfonse Gangitano. 

Instead, I hear the hard nasal drawl of Richo, Minister for Kneecaps, a man who knew a thing or two about tricks, political and otherwise, the Labor right’s one time capo di capo, about to keel over from chondrosarcoma but still wanting to go mano a mano.

This is no ghost though. I’ve accidentally clicked on his latest Whooshkaa podcast. And his words cut through the buzz of static in my brain, succinctly summing up my thoughts, and oh-so-colourfully describing the colourless monoculture of Australian politics over the past decade. 

“Australia, hasn’t fallen in love with Bill Shorten, they won’t wear him. (Kevin) Rudd … that hopeless arrogant turd who paraded around hating everyone and treating everybody with contempt. he goes and you get (Julia) Gillard, who was just Rudd in a skirt, who disregarded everyone who ever told her anything sensible, always made her own calls and was always wrong, a hopeless politician. Then Tony Abbott … with Prince Philip and his knighthood, and the 2014 budget which was an attack on every Australian who didn’t have a quid. Turnbull, who might be bright but isn’t smart. All those bad leaders in a row - we’ve lost faith in our political class.”

Richo might have been a foul-mouthed grub with unexplained millions stashed in a Swiss bank account, a tad too chummy with the likes of Fast Eddie and dead Rene, but in the great Keating tradition he could call a spade a spade in the most entertaining way.

It’s nippy in Bippy’s as I sit in the restaurant at the front of the Town and Country Strathfield, feeling like an alien, contemplating my return to the country of my birth and my incipient return to journalism, on the eve of an election that sounds like a whooshkaa. 

I’d love to have a beer with Richo. Richo’s me mate.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Els Hath No Fury: An Audience With Golf's Equanimous Everyman

Sports writing is one facet of journalism left largely unscratched by my scribblings. There has been the odd moment though ... a fruitless week chasing Eric Cantona from Bangkok to Pattaya and back in search of an interview that never was, covering a State of Origin match from the 'Pig Pen' of Lang Park in Brisbane, interviewing tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova and on this occasion, travelling to Shenzhen for an audience with the man they call 'The Big Easy'. The story originally appeared in Mission Hills Magazine.

Grey sheets of rain have turned the Mission Hills greens to slate and it’s classic South China spring weather; at once cold and humid. The sort of day that could have a sun-loving South African like Theodore Ernest Els wishing he was back home on the veldt.

    But the Big Easy, true to his nickname, was equanimity personified. With the inclement weather forcing the cancellation of a planned walking tour of his signature Savannah Course, he instead treated members to a sterling display of big hitting at the driving range. “Oops, in the water,’’ he quipped, as another ball almost disappeared from sight, missile-straight, then plopped down at the far end of the sodden range.

    His dry and ready sense of humour and laid-back demeanour make the current world Number Three a crowd favourite where ever he goes, and he quickly endeared himself to both staff and members at Mission Hills. Even after a long day fulfilling numerous commitments around the club during his recent visit to inspect progress on the Savannah Course, he was happy to sit down with Mission Hills Magazine and discuss how 2001 is shaping up so far.

     He placed a creditable sixth at the US Masters - a showing that he was happy with following on the heels of a disastrous preceding month. “I kind of went from mediocre to bad to worse,’’ he says of his pre-Masters slump in form. “Before the Masters, I shot an 81 at Bell South Classic, which is my highest score in three years. I wasn’t even going to play the Bell South, as I’d had a poor run at the Players’ Championship the week before. Before that I was at Bay Hill and I finished 60th, and before that was Miami, where I finished 25th .

    “So I thought I’d go and play in Atlanta the week before the Masters, as I was very uncomfortable with the way I was playing. I thought I’d go there to work on my driving, which was really hurting me a bit, to work on my grip, how to get it back in a neutral position. And I felt I had to do it in tournament play rather than have a week off and stand on the range. It feels great on the range, but tournaments are another thing.
So I was pretty happy that I bounced back at the Masters.’’

    It was a rare blip on a great run of results. Indeed, were it not for a phenomenon named Tiger Woods,  Els’ tally of two US Opens would be bolstered by a string of other majors. Last year alone, he placed second in three majors: the Masters, British Open and US Open. Last year also saw him clinch the US$2 million first prize at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City, where he edged out Lee Westwood in a play-off. Earlier this year, he placed fourth in the Accenture World Matchplay tournament in Australia and third at the Mercedes Open at Kapalua.

    Then the rot set in. Els is famed for his fluid swing and natural rhythm and it was a rare and worrying moment when they temporarily deserted him. His solution: Keep it simple, stupid. Instead of panicking and turning to a battery of coaches and advisors, Els worked with his dad to get back to fundamentals. “My dad, he’s known my game since I started playing, he knows my basics. We worked together before the Masters and got things back to where they felt good.  When you play badly and do bad things for a while you lose a bit of confidence and that’s what happened.

    “You know, we play such a crazy, funny game. When you're playing well, people kind of leave you alone. Once you make a bad score or have a bad week, and it turns into another bad week, it might only be your putting, or some bad thinking, or your swing, and suddenly everyone wants to tell you what's wrong with your game. It's happened to me, and I've had to stand up and say, hey guys, let me work it out on my own. I think it's a problem nowadays. You can overanalyse. There are a lot of things in this game and a lot has to do with the way you think.’’

      Famed coach and Hall Of Fame inductee Bob Toski once summed this up perfectly, if inelegantly. “Ernie Els? The only thing you can do with Ernie Els is (expletive) him up.’’ Els concurs. “I'll go with what Bob says, you can screw yourself up quickly. I've seen it happen to other players. Sometimes you shouldn't take it all too seriously.’’

     Els says he enjoys the pressure of the big tournaments and he is feeling good about the rest of the year’s challenges. “I regard myself as a player for majors. I enjoy the situation, I enjoy the nervousness, the tension.

You know, I had a lot of opportunities to win golf tournaments last year. I won twice, once on the European tour, once on the American tour and once back home. Three times. So I had a good financial year, put it that way. I didn't win as many times as I wanted to, but as I sit here now in April and look back at last year I've got to be pretty pleased.’’

      The US Open is looming and Els says he’s ready. “It’s in Oklahoma this year. We played a PGA there in 1994 and we played a tour championship there. I think I finished 25th for PGA then the  tour championship I won there. So I've had a good one and a bad one at that place. I hear they've lengthened the course. The greens are very fast. It's going to be very hot too. That course reminds me of courses back home. I know it pretty well and I don't think it suits my game at all. It's a bit of a fiddly course if you know what I mean, you have to fiddle some shots, nine, 10, 12, a lot of thin holes and a lot of dogleg holes. It's a funny course.  I've started working on some shots, to gear game to the course. Your short game is very important, so I'm starting to try to shape shots with my irons.’’

     Els says he’s delighted to be back at Mission Hills. “I remember watching the World Cup on television when it was here in 1995, and then I played here for the first time in 1998 on the Johnny Walker Super Tour. I think it’s great to be involved here, and to watch golf developing in China. A signature course is the kind of thing people can remember you by.

     “What do I think of golf in China? Well, it can only get better. I’ve heard there are a billion people in China, so the only way is up. There are probably 80 to 100 golf courses in the country now. It only takes one man or woman to come out of China, play abroad and hopefully get on the US PGA tour and off you go. Look at what Se Ri Pak did for Korean golf. She really put that country on the map golfing-wise. What’s happening here at Mission Hills should tell you something. There's a lot of enthusiasm going on here for golf, five very good golf courses, facilities unbelievable. You can take it a long way, start producing talent, get a good base, get young players to start playing the game and who knows how far you guys can go here.’’

    With a wife and two-year-old daughter, Els says family life has changed his priorities and helped him focus.  “I really enjoy my life right now. My time spent at golf is a lot more focused than it used to be. I don't spend all day every day at the golf course, but when I do spend time at the golf course I like to work hard and get a little bit more intensity in my workouts. There's definitely some meaning in my life. I'm 31 years old now, I've got a good 10 years ahead of me and like a lot of other players I think there's a little bit more urgency in  my game right now. Having a family definitely hasn't taken anything away, I think it's made me better.’’

     Els has homes in South Africa, Orlando and London, with another planned in the Bahamas. "We split our time where the golf takes us really. My family still travels with me. Little Samantha is only two years old, so it will be a couple of years before she has to go to school and I'll try to take her with me as much as possible. ''

     I feel compelled to mention the "T'' word, and on this subject Els is philosophical. He doesn’t spend sweaty, sleepless nights pondering what could have been in a world without Woods. Nor does he believe  Woods' unprecedented feat of holding all four majors at once is an official grand slam because it's not in a calendar year. "Call it what you may, it's an unbelievable achievement, never been done before. I guess you can call it any kind of slam but it's not the grand slam. But you can't take anything away, it's unbelievable. Phenomenal. It's probably a  Tiger

Slam. Call it that.''

    He says you cannot let Tiger intimidate you, or it's curtains. "There's definitely a lot more pressure from outside when you're playing with Tiger, there's a lot more focus on your group, on your match. One thing you cannot let happen is to get intimidated by who you play with. You go out there and play 18 holes and that's going to take you about four-and-a-half hours. So if you get intimidated or scared on the first tee, then you're going to have problems all day.’’

    It emerges that Els has a friendly rivalry with fellow big-hitter and Mission Hills course designer Vijay Singh. "We play a lot of golf together, myself and Vijay. I've played with him ever since got on the tour in the US, and before that we played together in Europe for a while. So I've known him the best part of nine years now and regard him as a close friend of mine. We play a lot of games together and we have a lot of gambling games going on when we play together. And he's one of the best when it comes to gambling. I've paid so much money to him in gambling debts." So who hits the ball further? The 6'4'', 15 stone gentle giant  chuckles. "When I'm on, I can hit it further than him.''

    But back to Tiger. Can he be stopped, or is he just beginning to write the most incredible chapter in golf's long and colourful history. Els stares out the window for a moment, and when he turns back, there is an unusual intensity in his blue-grey eyes. "I'll tell you one thing man, what can stop Tiger is very good golf. He's still winning but he's not winning by far. He's just scraping through now. With a little bit of luck and hitting the right shots at the right time, guys could have beaten him. It's narrowing down a lot and I think it's closer than most people think. 
   "I want to be ready when the situation comes my way, to grab that situation and run with it. The thing on my side is that I've won majors myself. At certain points in major championships, you have to hit the right shot at the right time. That's what you've got to do.''

    Els is happy to sit back and wait for his chance, as the golf world waxes hyperbolic about the Tiger Slam. He has the tools, the power and the talent to carve out his own place in golf's annals. An Easy Slam, perhaps? "I'd like to win the Grand Slam myself,'' he admits. "I don't know how long it will take, but to win all four majors at least once, that's my goal.''

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Tuk Tuk dress revs up Miss Universe then runs out of gas

This piece originally appeared in Fah Thai, the inflight magazine of Bangkok Airways. Khun Aniporn did not go on to lift the worldwide title, making the top 10 cut but not the final five for Miss Universe 2015. Her dress, however, stole the show, winning Best National Costume, adding to the legend of Thailand's loved and loathed icon, the tuk tuk. 

"Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory." —Coco Chanel

This sage advice from the greatest fashion icon of them all should be easy to heed as Miss Universe Thailand Aniporn Chalermburanawong gets ready for the biggest beauty pageant of them all - Miss Universe 2015.

Miss Aniporn will take to the stage at the Axis Theatre, Planet Hollywood Resort in Los Angeles dressed as a tuk tuk, complete with handlebars, working headlights, rearview mirrors, chromium accents and racing stripes, flags and streamers, tights in a tread pattern to resemble tires, a klaxon ‘ahooga’ multi tone horn that plays the Thai National Anthem, and a mobile smoke machine that shrouds the entire stage and auditorium in a thick, choking smog.

OK, I made the last two up. But the rest is all absolute fact. The ‘Tuk Tuk Dress’ will be worn by Aniporn in the “national costume” round at the pageant in December in the United States. It was the winning design from 356 entries in a contest held by Miss Universe Thailand.

The Miss Universe Thailand organization announced the winning design on its Facebook page recently, praising the outfit’s metallic look and use of 3D design technology. “The tuk-tuk dress will flash lights like a real tuk-tuk,” said Kaveerat Kunapat, a spokeswoman for Miss Universe Thailand. “It will be one of a kind.” She said a five-member panel of judges that included fine arts professors, fashion designers and Miss Thailand herself wanted to break from the past style of traditional Thai silk dresses and present something ‘eye-catching but still representative of Thailand’. Comments on internet forums have been less kind, with one critic notably describing it as ‘something out of Transformers’.

The man responsible for this two-stroke of genius, which has been lauded and ridiculed in equal part in the fashion crime courts of the internet, is Hirankrit Pattaraboriboonkul 35, a cultural scholar and aspiring designer, who denies he nicked the idea from George Michael’s ‘Get Funky’ video, which featured Thierry Mugler’s famous handlebar bustier dress, later adopted by Beyonce for her 'Sasha Fierce' schtick.

“I created this dress to make our representative more visible on stage and different from our past costumes with its pop-art design,” said Hirankrit. “I thought it was time to make a break from the past with a fresh and direct pop approach.

“I spent three days designing this dress and researching national costumes from previous years,” he said. “This is my first year joining the competition.” Apiporn agreed the costume would help a foreign audience recognize she is from Thailand.

Should she fail to bring the title back to Thailand, it might also facilitate a fast getaway.

Tuk Tuk Bang Bang. Digital painting. © Jason Gagliardi 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

My iPad Wants To Kill Your Mama: a wordsmith talks pictures, Insta-art and keeping it surreal

This is the full interview I did with Dusit Hotels' Eight magazine on my new passion, digital art, for its latest issue, themed 'Renewal'. I have written for Eight before, most recently my essay on the colour red, but this time the tables were turned. After a lifetime spent asking the questions, it was a bit odd being the interviewee, not the interviewer. Then again, a writer who spends all his spare time creating images on his mobile devices is pretty odd too. This is much longer than the piece that was published. Contains all sorts of opinion, rants and detailed stuff about apps, so be warned. 

Where were you born?
A city in Australia called Brisbane, but referred to by its inhabitants as Brisvegas, 

Where were you raised?

I was raised in Brisbane and then Townsville, which is North Queensland, a nondescript army town in my day but a nice town these days by all accounts. Did all my high school in Townsville, then hightailed it for three days on a bus to Melbourne, to take up my place at the Australian Ballet School. After injuries and a lack of talent convinced me I would not be the next Baryshnikov, I returned to Brisbane and slunk into journalism, on a suburban weekly and then the Courier-Mail, one of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited papers. 

What do you do full time? 

I have sold out more thoroughly and convincingly than most, having gone from journalism not straight to PR, where most washed up hacks go for better pay and a bigger expense account, but via the equally soul-staining wastelands of advertising, where the only truism worth knowing is that you can’t polish a turd. 

What pants, shirt, shoes are you wearing right now? 

Slightly frayed boxer shorts. A faded Batman t-shirt. No shoes. I was working at home today you see. But I still got dressed up for this interview.

What kind of phone and model do you have?

I have the latest iPhone, 128G 6S and I have the latest iPad mini 4 and have been looking with beady eyes at the new iPad Pro, a great outsized thing that will work with the iPencil, Apple’s about turn and middle finger to Steve Jobs’ refusal to entertain anything to prod your screen with other than your fingers. I’ve tried various styluses (styli?), both low tech and (allegedly) hi tech ones that pair with some apps and allow pressure sensitive strokes, but I keep going back to my right index finger. Call it Neo-Pointillism. 

What apps do you use to do your insta-art, or what are your favourite apps

Well, increasingly I spend most of my time using Procreate, which is the sine qua non of digital painting applications. It’s just brilliant. Really well thought out, with the brush and opacity sliders and colour picker at your fingertips, a beautiful interface and a dazzling array of brushes, with an engine that makes painting seamless and just like the real thing, except for the lack of mess and the one huge advantage of digital painting: the back button. I also used Art Studio a lot for painting. You see often start out with only the vaguest idea of where I’m going, and I might begin by mashing two pictures together using Union, part of the Pixite family and the best for photo blending, masking and mashing up two images together. 

Mummy and Daddy Are Drinking Beer Again 
 and There Are Monsters in the Bookcase 
(© Jason Gagliardi. Digital painting in Procreate).
Pixite also make some of my other favourites, like Lorystripes, a series of elegant and whimsical stripes and ribbons and things you can insert into images and move around in 3D, Fragment, which is amazing when you have run out of ideas, sometimes I use that on shuffle and see what it throws up, it’s all kinds of geometric shapes and complex prisms and organic forms overlaid onto images with many adjustable parameters Tangent is a cute one the do which lets you do simple graphic design overlays and patterns and such. Matter is for inserting three D objects into images with masking capabilities. And their latest I’ve been messing around with a lot, Assembly, which is a naive art almost childlike thing which lets you build up intricate images from building blocks of shapes. 

Steampunk Butterfly Boots  (Painting in Procreate)

Some of the apps which throw up weird and amazing ideas I never would have thought up staring at a blank piece of paper include Circular, which gives images a great swirl, and Glitche, which does unspeakably weird things to pictures. I use various depth of field apps, mostly Tadaa lately, which can keep some of your shot in focus and blur out the rest, like a SLR camera can via its depth of field. I take my shots with a mix of the native camera in the iPhone, ProCam, and VSCOCam. Stackables is a go-to for beautiful overlays and textures and lighting, which has replace Mextures as my go-to app for that sort of thing.

 Filterstorm Neuea and Polar have nifty filters and effects. IColorama is another standout, just amazing manipulation effects. Snapseed is probably the best all round photo editor, very versatile and has a great feature most lack, which is the ability to adjust contrast, saturation and brightness just on a piece of an image that you highlight, not the entire image as well as use a brush to change saturation, exposure, dodge-burn and temperature on just the bits of a shot you want to tone down or emphasise. 

Tuk Tuk Bang Bang   ©Jason Gagliardi (Painting in Procreate)
 I did use a lot, it changes a photo into a bunch of

different painting styles, but these days I’d rather paint myself. The computer painting apps that do it for you always look a bit weird, as the computer doesn’t know what its subject matter is, it’s just following algorithms. Enlight is another good all-rounder. Big Photo can bump up the size and DPI of images, handy if printing out big. 

A Short History of the Human Condition
©Jason Gagliardi (Procreate painting, based on earlier photo mashup)
Reflect is a cool app, allows you to put reflections in various water  bodies and shiny surface. Glaze gives good glaze effects, decimate is a weird one but never quite warmed to it, prefer Glitche. Path On is cool, lets you draw a path onto an image and then put text in the font, size, style, colour etc into the image along the path you drew.That probably covers my key ones. Some pieces I might use 10 of those apps in combination. Others I might just paint onto a white ‘canvas’ on my ipad from a photo I took. Paintings can take a while … a couple of days, or a long all-nighter. I regularly find myself crawling into bed at 5am gasping at the time, as painting becomes like a meditation, you get so focused and wrapped up in what you are doing. 

Which is your favourite app and why? What's your technique? 

Faith Reinterpreted. ©Jason Gagliardi  
 Piece for Mobitog, classic albums recovered
Argh. So hard to pick one. Procreate for it’s amazing seamless painting experience. Union is my workhorse. And Circular, Fragment and Glitche are great for unlocking creativity and summoning weird stuff you might never otherwise have dreamed up. I often noodle around, blending images, distorting them, and then something will appear that gives me an idea. And I might use painting over an image to bring out what I saw a bit more, or I might paint from scratch using a photo or photos of mine for inspiration. I also do straight iPhone photography, justediting with filters and the usual editing parameters. 

I do everything from (fairly) straight portraits to weird and surreal stuff that is not easy to describe and can’t always be explained. I do love surrealism, looking at the world through a skewed lens and holding up a cracked mirror to the absurdities and mysteries of life, although I’m not sure I agree with Andre Breton’s contention that the only surrealist act is to walk into the street with a gun and shoot random people. Dali’s melting clocks are more my speed, or his Lobster Telephone. 
Cross Road Revisited.
 ©Jason Gagliardi for Mobitog challenge
The Pixies are my favourite band, all things considered, Frank Black’s crazed lyricism and loud-soft-loud aesthetic are perfect for his meditations on matters like surrealism, aliens and obscure Californian cults. Debaser, on Doolittle, arguably their best album, is the first song, in which he starts shrieking about slicing up eyeballs, the opening scene of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Great stuff. Inspired. I had a project to make an Insta-art piece for each of the Pixies songs on their four great timeless albums. So far I have done two (I Bleed and Motorway to Roswell). I am going to do something similar for local electro band Wasabi Bytes - an album cover and an illustration for each song which will become part of the liner notes.
What got you interested in digital art? What themes in today's digital-first society inspire your imagery?

It’s my thesis that the smartphone and tablet revolution has fundamentally changed art, by making all of us artists, or at least much more aesthetically aware. Whether you are slapping a retro filter on your holiday happy snaps or painting elaborate abstracts on your iPad, these little tools in our pockets and bags have led to a big shift in making us all more attuned to design and art and creative acts. There’s also a disposable Warholian aspect to it. Warhol said in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. I think in our future, everyone will be famous for 15 seconds - the span of an Instagram video.

Has art always been free? 

The Ace of Spades: RIP Lemmy
©Jason Gagliardi (Painting in Procreate)
No, it’s often been very expensive, when you consider the profit margin on a rotting shark carcass and a couple of aquariums, which is all Damien Hirst needed to rake in the moolah. Well, that and a nifty title. One of my theories on art is that it’s all in the title and blurb. There’s a brilliant thing I came across called the Arty Bollocks Generator. You put your name in and it generates an instant artistic statement. Here, I just looked it up and got one: 

My work explores the relationship between Pre-Raphaelite tenets and unwanted gifts. With influences as diverse as Rousseau and John Lennon, new variations are crafted from both mundane and transcendent narratives. Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corroded into a manifesto of distress, leaving only a sense of decadence and the inevitability of a new synthesis.
Angel in the Room
  ©Jason Gagliardi (Painting in Procreate)
As spatial replicas become frozen through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the edges of our era.” 

The same site offers an ‘Artist Certificate’ approved by the Artistic Practice Licensing Authority. The holder must agree to produce occasional works of art, or at least talk about doing so, study treatises on real artists to understand how hopelessly short of their standards you fall, constantly compare your work to others and question whether you are good enough to be a proper artist, and constantly mutter about how someone will expose you soon.

That is hilarious. Describes my feelings about the whole thing quite well. I don’t know if mobile phone art is art per se. Depends on your definition. I’m sure artists who slap real paint on canvas look down their noses a bit at the digital painters. I DJ a bit, and there’s a snobbery and pecking order, like DJs who came of age beat-mixing on Technics decks with vinyl records tend to look askance at those who never knew anything but the MP3 and the autosync button. 

You've managed to find some success from digital art, how do you think that local people can benefit from being able to create works of art on the phone. Do you think that you are influencing local people in BK to do the same? 

Well, how do you define success? I put my stuff on Instagram because I need the little hits of approbation from random strangers, although this business of being spammed to within an inch of your life by cretins flogging fake instagram followers is bizarre and wearing thin. I’ve had two modest exhibitions, the latest being the illustrations I did for a book, Slave to the Bean by Bill Barnett, a Phuket-based hospitality consultant who writes columns on the horrors and inelegances of modern travel and hotels. In a nice post-modern twist, he was the consultant to the owner of the hotel where the exhibition is, Ad Lib in Sukhumvit Soi 1. Another hotel in Pattaya that will launch early next year has plans to put my stuff in its 90 or so guest rooms and lobby. I’m working on some more Thai-flavoured pieces for that. But I’m not fielding calls from MOMA or waving Charles Saatchi away as he tries to shove blank cheques in my face. 
Enter With Drag On Fly ©Jason Gagliardi  (appstract and painting in Procreate)  
I just do it because I feel compelled to and because it clears my mind and makes me feel better, following a year or two of personal upheaval after my wife of 15 years decided to disappear, along with all my savings and worldly possessions. Art as therapy is not to be sneezed at, cheaper than a shrink and at the end of the day you have something to show for your time. It is also a great procrastination technique.

I’m not sure my stuff would influence anyone for the better, although I suppose there might be a cathartic release or at least some schadenfreude for anyone looking at my stuff and thinking, wow, things might be tough but at least I’m not in that guy’s head.’ Would it be beneficial for Bangkokians to get into smartphone art? I suppose so. It would be more beneficial that wearing coloured shirts and killing each other. 

My tastes run to surreal, as I mentioned. One recent piece I titled Vagina Dentata Santa Meets the Grinch, which was in a quite abstract style which begins with a loose idea and only really takes shape as I go along, and ideas begin to crystallise. I love this approach … being open to where a piece takes you. As long as it turns out well. I am also obsessed with photographing Bangkok streetscapes and the spaces between the Skytrain platforms and the streets and buildings, slivers of street life glimpsed through dramatic vanishing points. I covered the entire Asok intersection with Sukumvit in about 60 of my shots of Chinatown for one piece. I recently painted an image of the late Lemmy of Motorhead fame, as some abstract thing I was noodling with suddenly looked like Lemmy seated on a great skull throne. And that led to a more serious portrait attempt too.
Welcome to Nana  ©Jason Gagliardi  (Painting in Procreate)

You mentioned how everyone will have 15 seconds of fame, which echoes Andy Warhol, and his quote "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."  Andy's art was also technical with silk screens and he in a way he modernised art. Do you see his as an inspiration? If so, to what extent? 

Warhol was an inspiring figure and also a rather insipid, weird and tragic one. Anyone who can make soup cans into art is all right by me, but you won’t catch me sitting through his movies that involve watching paint dry or one shot of someone sleeping for 12 hours.

What's the art scene like in Bangkok?

Asok Chinatown. ©Jason Gagliardi. (App-stract). 
I don’t know. I am not part of it. There is a pretty cool burgeoning scene around Charoen Krung Road, with places like Speedy Grandma, Serindia and Duangkrit Bunnag’s Jam Factory across the river. There are art-hopping walking tours done regularly around those galleries, which is cool. I went to S Gallery in Sofitel Sukhumvit the other night for the opening of Genii Loci, a mixture of painting and installation pieces. A very interesting chap with his finger in a few artistic pies runs that, Martin Guirly . 

If you could, how would you renew the art industry in Bangkok?

Free iPads for all! And do away with the greedier commissions some galleries gouge from artists. I’ve also been toying with the idea of starting a regular night say, once a month, for Insta-artists, with DJs, big screens or projections with artists creating stuff in real time and showing their process, a themed challenge for the night, prizes, collaborations. Oh, and let’s turn all the go-go bars into life drawing classes, and all the short time hotels into art installation venues. 

What's your favourite colour?

 I don’t really have one. It depends on my mood. I recently wrote a 1,500 word essay on the colour red, which can be read here: A lot of my stuff does tend to be very colourful. 

Does all your phone editing eat up your battery and what do you do about it?

Yes, it’s ridiculous that we have these ultra slim phones then have to carry around a bulky battery charging pack to keep it from going flat in less than a day. I go through my battery in half a day sometimes if I’m doing a lot of work with my iPhone. IPads last longer. Mine is often good for days. 
Monumental Victories ©Jason Gagliardi (Painting in Procreate)
What are the exact dates and name of venue and addresses of your next show? 

Current one is Slave to the Bean, and it’s at Ad Lib, Sukhumvit Soi 1, until the end of the year.

I also had a one-night exhibition of my stuff at the last Sunn party, at Live RCA, which was a techno party about 1,000 peoople came to. I had a whole wall to show my stuff on, so used that as a chance to test the waters and see how people responded. 

Other than instagram, what social media sites do you go on to look for inspiration? Where do you post?
Canned Reef. ©Jason Gagliardi (Painting and appstract)

I am a member of Mobitog, which is a global group of smartphone photography and art lovers who take part in competitions and challenges, critique each other’s work and discuss all matters mobile phone and tablet art related. It’s very supportive and there are a lot of talented people on there. There are different competitions, like one for black and white or mono shots and edits, a themed abstract contest, and fun stuff like redoing classic album covers. 

Sathorn Rouge.  ©Jason Gagliardi  (appstract) 
I also watch a lot of tutorials on painting, Procreate has a great forum and youtube is full of stuff. I used to paint badly in oils as a youth, ambitious and quite awful copies of Turners and Constables, apart from a brief obsession where for about a year I painted nothing but pictures of KISS, the rock band. I then painted nothing from the ages of about 18 to 48. So there’s a lot to learn but the painting aspect is what I find most rewarding and challenging. I bought a set of acrylics recently and have had a couple of goes at painting with real paint. The best thing about digital painting is the undo button.

Instagram is a double-edged sword. It’s great as a place to showcase your work, but it’s been overrun by idiots trying to sell fake likes. Also, it has fostered the trend of online one-upsmanship, especially with these ‘travel’ blogs where modern-day solipsists traipse the globe taking selfies in soft focus, often with bonus duckface. 

Chunderwood in Annondale. ©Jason Gagliardi.(Painting and appstract)


The greatest ignominy would be to join the growing ranks of the dead and injured who were too busy gazing at their screen to know what was happening around them, or who came to grief while doing something silly, dangerous or both to get the perfect selfie. I’m guilty of it myself, catch myself walking down flights of stairs while editing or painting. It’s dangerous, especially in Bangkok. I’m trying to give it up.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

A portrait of the artist as madman

This piece originally ran in a recent edition of Fah Thai, the Bangkok Airways magazine and one of the spiffy publications of the INK group.

Chalermchai Kositpipat is crazy like a fox. What does the fox say? “I am simply a painter … a small unit in human society, hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth.”

     That is Chalermchai in Thai National Artist humblebrag mode. But the creator of Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai, is prone to more bombastic and bizarre soundbites.

insta-art © Jason Gagliardi
  “A living treasure”, “world masterpiece” and “a must see for every human being” is how the self-styled “creator of food for the soul of all humanity” describes his work, begun in 1997 and so far costing a reported THB 40 million, all funded by the artist. It is his meisterwerk and magnificent obsession, a visual epic poem and a hubristic shrine to his own talent, draped in ancient allegories and limned with pop culture references.

    Lanna Rococo meets Buddhist Disneyland on Ritalin might best sum up the style, all white plaster and shards of glass and curlicues upon flourishes, like a wedding cake dreamed by Dali and left to melt in the Siamese sun. Visitors run a gamut of gods and monsters, cross a bridge over hell, depicted by 500 outstretched arms, and enter the red and gold ubosoth, an inner sanctum where the struggle between good and evil gets a Warholian makeover:

George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden glitter in a demon’s eyes as Doraemon watches the Twin Towers burn. Spiderman, Superman, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, The Terminator, Kung Fu Panda, Ronald McDonald and Hello Kitty are there, dodging space ships and ancient ogres.

       Chalermchai uses western pop culture to highlight the delusion of desire and to poke the glazed eye of rigid tradition. Thailand’s most successful living artist has seen his paintings fetch over THB 500,000 at auction, and counts among his collectors HM King Bhumibol Adulydej.

      A serial talk show guest, the artist made a recent appearance on left-field lifestyle program The Toilet Show, little knowing he would soon be starring in a toilet show all of his own. It began with his ban on Chinese tourists at the White Temple, announced to journalists along with a rap sheet of Chinese potty atrocities.  The headlines plopped into the public domain and splashed around the world. WeChat whizzed the straight poop to every last Chinese with a smartphone. It was a gut-punch to national pride, a strain on bilateral relations and threatened to put the skids on the torrent of free-spending Chinese tourists – the one thing propping up Thailand’s moribund economy.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Mr Dojo Rising ... Meet MMA's hardest Nutt

My latest piece in the South China Morning Post, on the full mental racket that is Full Metal Dojo, a potent cocktail of brutal cagefights, hot girls, hard rock, full beards and cold beer. Jon Nutt is the Dojo's high priest of hucksterism and hype. I meet him in 'the coolest city in the world' - Bangkok, says Nutt - to get the lowdown on throwdowns, takedowns, staredowns, and shakedowns, not to mention System of a Down.  Link to the SCMP story is here:

Jon Nutt has a reddish beard and a piratical air, although he professes no family connection to the 17th-century English pirate who cut a swathe through Newfoundland and Labrador before his capture in 1623.

The latter-day Nutt is content with cutting a swathe through the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) with his Full Metal Dojo show, which he somewhat breathlessly extols as the ‘fastest growing show on the planet, in the fastest growing sport on the planet, in the coolest city on the planet’ – his adopted home of Bangkok.

The most recent incarnation of Full Metal Dojo, two weeks ago, was held in the Sukhumvit Soi 12 club Insanity, formerly known as Insomnia, packing in a capacity crowd in excess of 600 people.
The first, although probably not the second, of the two conditions is almost certainly a boon in the world of MMA, a fighting style which sees two men or women of more or less equal weight (although often from wildly different fighting backgrounds) enter an octagonal cage and, with few rules and no holds barred, ‘get it on’ over three to five five-minute rounds.

The fighting discipline reached its global apotheosis with the show Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), in which the leading exponents must bring to the ring a mix of striking and grappling skills to have any chance of success.

Full Metal Dojo follows a similar model, although Nutt has made it his mission to spice up the showbiz pizzazz; his shows are a full metal racket that combines the bareknuckle fighting with hucksterism, live bands, DJs and copious quantities of food and booze. The Insanity show, Full Metal Dojo VI – For Those About to Rock, was the sixth outing in just over a year for the Full Metal Dojo machine – justification, in Nutt’s world, for his seemingly rather ambitious and exaggerated claim.

Six weeks earlier, Full Metal Dojo V took place on Bangkok’s outskirts, at a venue called Live House, tucked away in a warren of local bars with bands, art-and-craft shops and independent fashion boutiques known as JJ Green, near the popular Chatuchak Weekend Markets.

I walked into Live House, after 60 minutes wandering in fruitless if entertaining circles trying to find the place, to see a fight start and end, with a brutal uppercut and a knee to the head, inside four seconds.